NASA boffins have announced plans to fly a suitcase full of live butterflies up to the International Space Station, in a project appropriately named "Butterflies In Space".
Scientists in charge of Butterflies In Space have announced that a special space insect habitat will be launched into orbit aboard space shuttle Atlantis next week. In the "suitcase-sized" Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA) will travel Monarch and Painted Lady "butterflynauts", as well as larvae which will pupate and then emerge fully-fledged while actually in space.
"Our continuing goal is to inspire students around the country in science, technology, engineering and math," said Louis Stodieck, principal boffin on the project.
The idea is that thousands of schoolchildren across the States will study the effects of living in space on the butterflies, in many cases comparing the insectonauts' progress and lifestyle with Earthbound examples of the same species in their classrooms.
According to the project's website, this is not merely a case of NASA sending butterflies into space just because they can. No, there's valuable scientific research to be done here:
It will be instructive to see how monarchs function in a microgravity environment in which near weightlessness is the prevailing condition... if monarchs perform all life functions normally, in spite of the near weightless conditions, it will tell us that there are aspects of the monarch’s nervous control and physiology that allow for adjustments under such adverse conditions.
The many classroom butterflies down on Earth may suffer an equally grisly fate to the spacegoing ones, it would appear. According to the Butterflies In Space Q&A:
Releases are not advised. These are not migratory monarchs and it is already too late in the season. The next challenge might be to see how long you can keep your monarchs alive. They can be maintained at home or in the classroom on Gatorade for months, if relatively inactive.
The scientists don't specify that the astro-butterflies will also be fed on Gatorade, but do mention an "artificial diet that will work in transit and on the ISS", presumably not unrelated to the well-known sports drink.